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Cargo plane bombs were wired to explode, officials say

The two bombs concealed in U.S.-bound packages found on cargo planes in Britain and the United Arab Emirates were wired to explode, at least one via a cellphone detonator, and were powerful enough to bring down an aircraft, U.S. and British officials said Saturday.

A Yemeni official in Washington said a woman was arrested in Yemen in connection with sending the packages and that a relative, whom the official identified as either her mother or sister, was being interrogated.

“The woman was arrested based on a tip from foreign intelligence,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “Her name and phone number were provided.”

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in a short news conference Saturday that Yemeni forces acted on a tip from U.S. officials, who had passed along a telephone trace.

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The two bomb packages, addressed to Jewish organizations in Chicago, were intercepted Friday in airports in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and East Midlands, England, after a detailed tip from Saudi intelligence that included package tracking numbers, U.S. officials say. The Dubai package was sent via FedEx, and the package to England went via UPS. Initial reports had said that both were UPS parcels and that both had been found late Thursday.

A search of 15 other suspicious packages from Yemen turned up no bombs, a U.S. law enforcement source said.

U.S. officials are still trying to piece together the intent of the plot, which they suspect was carried out by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s affiliate in Yemen.  

It’s unclear how the Saudis were clued in, but this month a leader of the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen, Jabir Jubran Fayfi, turned himself in to the Saudi government. Picked up by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001, he had been held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before being turned over to Saudi Arabia. He went through a rehabilitation program for militants and was released, only to rejoin Al Qaeda in 2006.

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But Fayfi contacted Saudi authorities from Yemen to express his regret and readiness to surrender, the Saudi Interior Ministry said in a statement Oct 15.

On Saturday, authorities were investigating whether the plot sought to blow up the cargo planes in midair or upon landing — or whether the bombs were intended for the Chicago addresses on the packages. 

British Home Secretary Theresa May said Saturday in London that the target of the bomb found in her country may have been an aircraft, though “we do not believe that the perpetrators of the attack would have known the location of the device when it was planned to explode.”

As President Obama campaigned this weekend, he kept tabs on the investigation. He discussed the plot in phone calls Saturday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Saudi King Abdullah.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), after briefings from Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, said in an interview that the bombs were fashioned out of the chemical explosive PETN, the substance used in the attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner on Christmas Day.

“But this was 10 times bigger,” said a federal law enforcement official, who said the packages contained “about a pound each” of PETN.               

“The fact that PETN was used in this plot is worrisome,” said a U.S. intelligence official not authorized to speak for attribution. “PETN is hard to detect and lends itself to being concealed. It is not hard to make, but it takes some sophistication to conceal the explosives in the right way. It packs a punch. You don’t need that much of it to blow a hole in an aircraft.”

U.S. officials have said that the Christmas Day bomb was built by Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who also reportedly built a PETN device in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the top Saudi counter-terrorism official last year.

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One of the bombs found Friday was wired for remote detonation via cellphone, Harman said, and the other was linked to a timer but lacked a triggering device. The remote detonation setup “leads me to speculate that … people had [detonators] on the ground somewhere in Chicago,” she said.

At least one of the addresses in Chicago was for a church that had been used at one time by a Jewish congregation, but not for seven years. The bomb discovered in Dubai was wired to a SIM card, a portable memory chip typically used in mobile phones, said Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who serves on the intelligence and homeland security committees.

“The bombs were made to look like ink cartridges — like for a big Xerox machine,” he said.

Napolitano, interviewed on several television shows Saturday, would not say whether the bombs would have been detected by current screening procedures without the information from Saudi intelligence. Most cargo bound for the U.S. is screened by foreign governments, and 38% is not screened at all, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

The foiled attack is putting renewed scrutiny on Yemen, a nearly failed state that officials said has become an increasing hotbed of terrorist planning.

“Outside of the Afghan- Pakistan area where the Al Qaeda core and the senior leadership reside, I would say that the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most active operational franchise right now of Al Qaeda, and that this is one that deserves a lot of our attention,” White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan said Friday.

Stratfor, a Texas-based private intelligence firm, said in an e-mail Saturday that even though the plot did not inflict physical damage, it “severely disrupted the operations of two U.S.-based multibillion-dollar shipping corporations, preoccupied U.S., Saudi, Emirati and British security and intelligence officials and effectively sowed terror across much of the West.”

Sandra Munoz, a spokeswoman for FedEx, disputed that. “Our operations were normal,” she said, other than the suspension of package delivery from Yemen.

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U.S. law enforcement officials said they were increasingly intrigued by another Yemeni figure released to the Saudis in 2006, Uthman Ghamdi, also a former detainee at Guantanamo Bay.

Ghamdi reportedly has surfaced as a right-hand man to Anwar Awlaki, the American-born radical Muslim cleric thought to be living in Yemen. Both men are considered top leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Ghamdi recently wrote a memoir for Inspire magazine, an Al Qaeda online quarterly, in which he describes being flown to Guantanamo aboard a cargo plane, a link that officials said could give him a reason to want to strike at cargo aircraft.

He wrote that he was flown “for a long journey” to Guantanamo Bay in 2002. “We were not allowed to speak or move and we were prevented from seeing or hearing anything,” he wrote.

Ghamdi, who had been captured in Pakistan, was released from Guantanamo in 2006 and repatriated to Saudi Arabia. But like some of the other released captives, he soon took up the fight again.

In 2009, the Saudi government listed him among their 85 “most wanted” terrorism suspects. Ten other former captives also made the list. Ghamdi reportedly soon left Saudi Arabia for Yemen.

kdilanian@tribune.com

richard.serrano@latimes.com

bbennett@tribune.com


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